Catching Up On Chinese Culture In Liulichang

How to spend a Wednesday in Liulichang

The unofficial gateway into Liulichang

Wednesday of Fall break was spent exploring Liulichang, (as far as I know) the most famous district in Beijing to experience Chinese culture. It was actually one of the lesson topics in our textbooks, and since I hadn’t seen much culture other than Jingju, I figured I may as well check it out. I was warned beforehand that for every store that showcases “real” Chinese culture, there’s another that’s probably selling some really good fakes. It may not be that far off the touristy path, but as far as I’m concerned, it was still an interesting experience.

Liulichang takes its name from an official kiln which produced colored glazed tiles for the roofs of palaces, temples and nobles during the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming Dynasties (1368-1644). During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the area was popular with the scholar and artist crowds and it became a well know cultural street for selling antiques. Eventually the factory was closed and replaced by more shops, but it still kept the name. The street was renovated in 1982, and is still one of the most thriving cultural centers in all of Beijing.

Liulichang is known by scholars and tourists alike for it’s shops, including those selling the ‘four treasures of study’: writing brush, ink stick, ink slab and paper. This was in the first store that I went to, the one in the picture above. It was more for calligraphy than painting, but it had a little taste of everything (all four “treasures”). It reminded me of Diagon Alley except instead of wands, the shelves of this store were stocked with paint brushes. It’s the first store on the West side of the street, not to mention probably the most photographed place there, so you can’t miss it.
After being essentially ignored in the first two stores that I walked into on the main road, I purposely walked down a random narrow alley in hope’s of finding a more welcoming crowd. Lucky for me, I stumbled on this little gem, a traditional Chinese painting shop and gallery tucked in a corner. One of the women who worked/owned the place was really interested in my Chinese studies, and was happy to chat away (didn’t even try to sell me anything). I ended up staying there for almost an hour. The man in the picture was just a complete stud when it came to painting and calligraphy. I told he and the woman I was talking to that I had never done either, which prompted them to set me up with a practice pad and brush so I could show them my extremely poor character writing skills.
In addition to the higher end stores, Liulichang has a good number of novelty type shops. This one of my favorite displays that happened to be in multiple stores. It’s a collection of Cultural Revolution Red Guard Mao badges. Very cool especially because these things were like gold back in the day. Except for one thing…they were obviously fakes (saw the same tarnish on the same pins in different stores displays). That’s the catch about Liulichang. While it’s is a great place to buy a piece of authentic Chinese culture (as bad as it sounds), there are without question a ton of fakes produced and sold here. I’m not going to fault them for it – if we’re not smart enough to catch it, it’s our fault, not theirs.
As I was leaving a store on my way home, what looked like a giant ivory tusk caught my eye. Lo and behold, it was. Talk about an internal struggle – I’m staring at this amazing carving that I’m sure took a guy multiple painstaking months to make (something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in person before), but at the same time, I’ve been taught my entire life that it’s morally (and legally) unacceptable to kill an endangered animal. If you didn’t know, owning ivory isn’t illegal in China. The woman running the shop initially ignored me, which I was used to by that point, but I reverted to my got to move and asked her how much something costs in Chinese, and the conversation was off and running. She may or may not have had a crush on me as she kept complimenting my Chinese, which I know is definitely that good.
The first store on the left was a tea shop run by three women who were about my age. They invited me in, and even after I told them I didn’t drink tea and didn’t want to by anything, they still wanted to chat. That’s one of the great parts about Liulichang, especially for someone trying to learn Chinese. Store owners are absolutely pumped when a white person walks into their store and can speak Chinese. They don’t like speaking English, and every time a tourist walks into their store, they already know two things 1) there are going to be communication problems, and 2) more than likely, that person isn’t going to buy anything. Despite the fact that I told them I didn’t have a dime in my pocket (a lie), they were still eager just to talk. I don’t think I met a store owner that considered my lack of Chinese an inconvenience. They’re definitely going to slip in a quick sales pitch every now and then, but if you genuinely try to have a conversation, they’ll slow down and make the attempt to speak in a way they think you’ll understand.

There you have it, the center of culture in Beijing. If you’re looking to head that way, take subway line 2, get off at Hepingmen Station, get out of the station from Exit D1 or D2 (southwest exit), and walk south for 500 meters. If you’re looking to buy while you’re there, you can haggle over the price in most shops and stores. Either way, the air seems to be cleaner in that area, so it’s a good place to spend an afternoon.